The End of an Era

I returned to Denver from Milan about 5 days ago and the question I have heard the most from people is, “Aren’t you so glad to be home?” Honestly? No. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to see my friends and family and the mountains, but living in Italy was the experience of a lifetime and I am not ready for it to be over.

The last four months have been the wildest of my life. The amount of change and growth I experienced is unlike any other and I could not be more grateful for the blessing and experience to study abroad. I learned so much about myself and about the world around me, and I want to continue exploring those things.

When you move to a new country alone, you are forced to become an independent human being. You figure out how to survive like everyone else, and you figure out how to do it well. You learn, grow, change, make mistakes, fall down, and stand up again. I feel as though I changed and grew more in the last four months than I did in all of 2014 and 2015 combined. Looking back now, I would say I learned more from experiences than I did at my actual university- and to me, that’s okay. The lessons you learn abroad really can’t be taught in a classroom and they are invaluable.

A dear friend asked me to share a story about my experience abroad which explains my learning and growth, but the truth is I don’t have one specific story which explains such. There was no “Ah hah” moment, and there was no one specific time where I thought to myself, “Wow I just learned an invaluable life lesson which I can later apply in the real world”. No. The real truth: it is something which happens over time, and one day you wake up and realize you are a whole new person. It’s the experience as a whole which shapes and molds you for the rest of your life.

My growth has been for the better, and I am excited to start a new chapter of my life as a better, more confident and independent version of my old self. I see myself taking these new traits with me everywhere I go in life. From an interview, to a new job, to just being around the people that make me happy, I am a new me and that will never change.

So, to Milano, to the people I met abroad, and to the big, small, crazy, and not-so-crazy experiences I say thank you. Thank you for changing me forever and equipping me with the skills, independence, and confidence to face every new experience and challenge head-on, and to conquer the world, because as I have learned the world is my oyster.

It’s the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

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A wise friend once said to me, “You will return home and realize that everything around you has stayed the same, and you are the one who has changed.”

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The Abroad Effect

01106ba43bcbde02867eab96c67422e191a2c23783Have you ever had your heart broken? It usually happens when you realize that something incredible, something transformational, something you love, is lost. I have been feeling a little brokenhearted lately because being abroad for the past four months changed my life for the better: it made me a broader thinker, a more aware world citizen, a better friend, and a more confident person than before. But now that time is over. Studying abroad for a semester changed my world and opened my eyes to more possibilities for my future than I knew existed. I constantly struggle with reminding myself that even though the time is up, the impact this experience had on my life and myself as a person will stay with me forever.

As I anticipated, my classes were rigorous and interesting. What I didn’t expect were all the things I learned things that could never be taught in a classroom. By speaking to people from different countries, I learned about various cultures throughout Europe in addition to their perspectives on the United States. I have never been more aware of U.S. politics as I am now because the people I talked to were so engaged with political issues throughout Europe and the U.S. and wanted to hear my thoughts on those issues. Learning from people of various backgrounds about their opinions and beliefs allowed me to expand my perspective regarding multiple issues including the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the terrorist attacks in Paris and around the world, and the best way to run healthcare systems. These conversations encouraged me to consider the United States’ role in those issues from an outsider’s view and ponder solutions to those issues with a more worldly perspective. I learned to be more critical of the things I previously accepted as fact, yet I also learned to appreciate things about the United States which I previously took for granted. I also learned how to communicate better, both verbally and non-verbally as well as to be fearless in trying to speak another language instead of embarrassed about how little I know. Studying abroad gave me the skills, knowledge, and curiosity to speak to people from different cultures about their values and beliefs.

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One of the biggest changes I felt in myself was the development of independence and self-sufficiency. I no longer had my familiar city, friends, family, or even language around – yet I managed to create a life for myself. I learned how to navigate public transportation and I learned my way around the city. I had a bike and a gym and a favorite coffee shop and a short cut as well as a scenic route from my apartment to school. I learned how to not only survive, but thrive without my familiar surroundings or usual support systems. I made new friends, some of whom now feel more like family. Living so permanently out of my comfort zone forced me to grow up and rise to the challenges. It forced me to embrace adulthood with a more mature and aware perspective and to learn exactly how much I am capable of accomplishing.

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50 Things I learned While Abroad

  1. Never speak French with Fleming
  2. In the French culture, keep your hands on the table at dinner
  3. Belgian Beer, slow and steady. Slow and steady.
  4. French women definitely shave their armpits
  5. I can’t sing Le Marseillaise but its growing on me
  6. Belgium has 5 governments, and none of them seem to be effective
  7. Protests just happen, because they can (beware of angry farmers)
  8. Trains do their own thing, so roll with it
  9. Pretzels really are better in Germany
  10. Don’t go to the French Riviera after massive floods
    1. But if you do, travel with someone you love
    2. Definitely don’t airbnb anything outside of major downtown cities
  11. Every time you travel somewhere look outside and think about it, there’s probably somewhere very similar in the U.S. and that’s probably the reason those people moved there
  12. If you can’t handle being uncomfortable then you’ll never know what its like to be comfortable
  13. European towels are smaller and thinner
  14. You need an Umbrella, a good coat, and some resilient shoes in Brussels
  15. It’s ok to take a break.
  16. Things in Europe aren’t better or worse, they’re just European.
  17. The U.S. isn’t the only country that follows U.S. politics.
  18. I don’t know as many languages as people in Europe do
  19. Levi’s are cheaper in the U.S. by a long shot
  20. Europe needs more Dad jokes
  21. You can buy Frites-sauce in the grocery store
  22. Sweet, not salty for breakfast
  23. Money comes and goes, you don’t. Some things are worth buying.
  24. Traveling alone or with someone or both
  25. Taking the Thallys train is a beautiful thing
  26. Subways are the equivalent of live YouTube, you’re going to end up watching some weird stuff
  27. Europe has supermarkets
  28. I’m never going to be able to describe this experience in its entirety.
  29. Never try to memorize the types of grapes in the Loire Valley
  30. Lyon is the best kept (not so) secret of France
  31. Terrorists will never stop Europe from being Europe
  32. Kebab stands can solve the world’s most difficult issues of diplomacy
  33. Switzerland is really
  34. Skiing Switzerland really is all its cracked up to be
  35. The real Matterhorn is cooler than the Disney one, although it does not have a roller coaster
  36. I don’t like mulled wine; I gave it my best shot (pun intended)
  37. Applying for residency in Brussels is like to dipping your body in peanut butter and walking around town: you can do it… but why?
  38. Inflated grades in the US may be silly but at least they make you smile more than deflated grades in Europe
  39. American politics are funny to watch abroad until you realize that you are returning to those politics
  40. Most meats at a Buchon in Lyon: just eat it and don’t think about.
  41. Don’t put a $20 bill in the Laundromat coin machine (unless you love .50 coins)
  42. You may not be fluent, but you’re in a good spot if you can help an old lady with directions to the bus stop in French.
  43. Spontaneity is great, but have a back up plan
  44. Amsterdam is wild
  45. Hitler is the reason that Alsace wine varieties are so limited and controlled
  46. Hotels and stars: 1-2 shame on you (stay in a hostel), 3 Russian roulette, 4 good times
  47. Space bags are the way of the future
  48. Cornichon = pickle, not a pointed hat *cue confused professor’s face*
  49. People who say carbs are bad for you clearly have not had enough French bread (it’s a lost cause fighting its seductive delicious powers)
  50. The ladies who clean bathrooms all day probably make more money than I will out of college

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Final Reflections

I never wanted to study abroad. I have always desired to travel and adventure and see and do things. But, I never wanted to study in a foreign place. However, by some fluke, I ended up in Spain this semester. I think I just followed the motions of what everyone else was doing: applying to places, going to meetings, and then finally, receiving my acceptance.

I was scared to be left in Denver alone, without my people, living with my roommates’ subletters, and wasting time counting the weeks for their return. I never looked at myself as dependent on others, but I think that moment of my life, so dictated by what all of the junior class was doing, showed myself that I wasn’t as independent as I had hoped.

I, as I’m sure many people do, went into the study abroad experience thinking it would change my life. In reality, four months is not that long. But, four months in a foreign country? A new place with a different culture, language, and living with a family who can’t even understand half of what you’re saying (let alone what you’re feeling)? That makes for a long four months! And that should be life changing.

When I first started reflecting on my experience this semester, I was worried. I couldn’t see any direct changes in myself (other than the dreaded Abroad 15, of course). Then, I realized that parts of me did change, it just was not in the way I had expected; I was anticipating to have some specific impact from Spain.

Studying and living abroad taught me to rely on myself more than any amount of college, travel, or work could. I became my own translator, personal navigator, planner, friend, and even my own parent. Of course I made some of the best friends abroad. But, studying abroad made for so much quality alone time, too.

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Taylor and Ali are some of the many friends I made abroad

 

Simple tasks became tests of independence abroad. Getting money from the ATM in Spanish? Sure. Filling out gym membership paperwork? Okay. Navigating the metro system? One wrong train and I never made that mistake again. While abroad, I became a lot more comfortable asking for help. My first day in Spain I was panicked by how little Spanish I knew. But I learned to format the little vocabulary I knew into questions and statements that portray almost exactly what I originally meant. I thought asking for help made me weaker, but it really made me less reliant on my friends and family.

While I stayed close to home for college, studying abroad gave me the confidence that I can move away from Denver after school. During these four months in Spain, I could not call my family for a pep talk before my first Skype interview. I did not have anyone to take care of me when I was sick. And perhaps the worst of all, when your suitcase gets lost at the beginning of your trip; you have to handle these things alone.

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A picture of the National Palace from my first solo trip to Madrid

Everyone who went abroad this semester overcame things on their own because there was no other choice but to do just that. As for me, I am finally the independent girl I thought I was before studying abroad, and I have no regrets about following the crowd in order to get there.

 

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How To: Make Tortilla de Patata

I do not like eggs. I’m not sure what it is about them, but it is just a no go. I can’t smell them, I can’t clean my roommates’ dirty saucepans with little burnt egg crisps, and I cannot crack them. While I can muster the courage to eat baked goods like brownies, cakes, and cookies, even French toast is too egg-y for my taste buds.

However, in Spain, I have found the perfect egg dish: Tortilla de Patata. It is kind of like a Spanish omelet. All of the locals eat tortilla de patata. It is common for both dinner or as a pinxto (which is like the Basque country version of tapas, made as a single serving). We learned how to make Tortilla de Patata in my Spanish Gastronomy class, so, I decided to include the recipe so everyone can try typical Spanish cuisine! Food is culture, am I right? Note that the ingredients are for 12 people, so change the ingredients depending on how many people you are cooking for.

 

Tortilla de Patata

tortilla de patata

photo by Katherine Gibson

Ingredients:

Serves 12 People

  • 6 kg potatoes
  • 1.5 L olive oil
  • 24 eggs
  • Salt

 

Instructions:

To start, peel the potatoes and put them in a bowl of water. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan on the stovetop. Then, cut the potatoes (in a uniform size) and put them in the frying pan, once the oil is hot. Add salt on top of the potatoes and fry them. Make sure to stir the potatoes until they are browned and cooked through. When the potatoes are golden brown, use a slotted spoon to remove the potatoes from the pot.

Put two generous spoons of the potatoes into a bowl. Then, crack two eggs into the potatoes and add salt. Mix these things together with a fork. Next, put a little of the leftover olive oil in a new, hot frying pan. Add the egg and potato mixture from the bowl. After about 2 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and flip the tortilla using a plate. Cook the other side a little more (for 30 seconds or so). Remove the tortilla de patata from the pan. Repeat this process until all of the tortillas are made!

Enjoy!

 

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The Final Countdown

A new James Bond movie, Adele returned to music, Paris was attacked, Brussels was locked down, migrants flooded into Europe (sometimes to more violence), Southern France flooded, Portugal’s government was overturned in an election, Turkey shot down a Russian plane… If Billy Joel hadn’t already written We Didn’t Start the Fire, I would most certainly be writing the European version for 2015. Studying abroad changed me in more profound ways than I can count, but for me it simply boils down to exposure. There are many trials in life that can test one’s self and cause one to grow, but simply being exposed to a different culture firsthand is the flashpoint.

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For many, studying abroad is the first time they are truly thrust into a foreign country to live and not simply enjoy the comforts of short travel such as family, resorts, and even modern appliances. The shock alone from this is an amazingly difficult time to overcome but certainly makes you a better traveler, more flexible, and it grows your appreciation for what the word home means to you. While this experience and the following period of reflection are critical points that many students and young adults experience upon their first extended travels abroad, this is not what I was looking for.

Having been born abroad, traveled abroad, and briefly “studied” abroad before I was looking for more than simply the initial discomfort of a foreign environment: I wanted to truly dissolve into a new community, gain professional experience, and develop my language skills to a higher level of proficiency (and maybe the elusive status of fluency). For me, that possibility was studying abroad in Brussels. Being able to use my French daily, albeit working around Flemish, working as an analyst in a think tank with European colleagues, attending classes about security and international politics from European experts, and the simple conversations with my barber or bar tender truly opened me up to life outside the US.

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My personal growth abroad was mastering my travel identities. Being able to travel and live abroad is analogous to that of a wardrobe: you need a small set of skills that you can easily mix and match for the occasion. Whether it be knowing not to speak French to a Fleming, speak French before English with a Walloon, speak softly on the metro, kiss someone’s cheek once (twice, even thrice), it’s important to bring more than just a suitcase and a good book. What we fail to realize sometimes as travelers, expats, students, or simply outsiders is that being “cultured” isn’t the amount of travel nor the amount of facts we can divulge on request, but the subconscious ability to change our perspective and demeanor. Being “cultured” is adapting to foreign environments a habit: change is the norm. I do not claim to be a travel chameleon that can change identity without even knowing, but I am a league closer than I was prior to living in Brussels.

I have written previously about the importance of flexibility, and to this day it is still a skill that I continue to work on. I cannot definitively say that studying abroad is the only way I would have learned value of this skill and it is not the first time I have truly needed it, but it is the reason for my continuous reflection upon the matter. Whether it has been trains, planes, and automobiles, lodging, food, language gaps, or simply the trustworthy male sense of direction, I am truly grateful for this experience and how it has taught me about self-control, understanding, and the ability to move with “fluid” situations.

As I prepare to come “home” to my house in the North suburbs of Chicago to see my family for Christmas, I am left thinking about what this experience means to me moving forward. Metaphorically speaking, I have finished the who, what, when, where, and why, but now I am on the how. To me, there are two ways to use my knowledge when I return: as an advocate and professionally. To distinguish between the two, advocacy to me in this case would be stressing the importance to fellow Americans of the dire need to intervene in the Middle East because of ISIS (having witnessed the effects of their terrorism throughout Europe) or simply stressing the importance of being smart travelers and knowing more about your destination than simply your hotel and where the bars are. Professionally speaking I plan to use my experiences and knowledge throughout the rest of my life whether it is in my classes at DU, discussions with peers, a potential career in diplomacy, or simply applying for jobs. I think the most valuable skill is being able to connect with a complete stranger from the other side of the world, and this experience has opened up more doors to bring me closer to that goal.

These are my three pieces of advice upon returning from Brussels:

  1. We never stop growing inside. Our curiosity fuels the adventure in our lives, that’s what makes us human.
  2. There is always a reason to leave, the hard part is finding reasons why you shouldn’t.
  3. It is always nice to come home, learn to make home more places than one.

 

 

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Coping with Returnee-ism

Oh boy. You’re a returnee. You’ve just gotten home from abroad. Now, you’re responsible for validating your existence and entire experience in a 30-second-or-less recap where you attempt to explain a roller coaster of emotions, a sense of self-actualization, loneliness, elation, and tangible experiences. Good. Luck.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve learned the greatest deflecting tactic on the planet:

Acquaintance A: “How was your trip?”

Me: “It was amazing!!!”

For most people, that interaction will suffice. They’ve engaged you to a surface-level point where they’ve shown enough interest to maintain your relationship, but still remain depth-free, and while you’re stricken with guilt knowing you’re telling a minuscule portion of your experience, you are more than happy to avoid talking about your trip’s pit falls and focus on the amazing parts. Win-win.

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I visited the Miyajima Shrine in Japan, which was actually amazing

Acquaintance A: “What made it so amazing? What did you do? Were there any difficult parts? ”

Once the second probe happens, you buckle down. They’re really interested. You’re not getting away scot free. Winter is coming.

You have to understand, I’m extroverted and still hate this part. I like to think of myself as articulate, but have an extremely difficult time encapsulating the holistic nature of a trip abroad. The peaks feed into the troughs, which then feed into the peaks, in an endless cycle that still affects me well after my return.

For example, during my study abroad program, I directly enrolled in the University of Salamanca, meaning I set up my own classes, lived with a host-family, and didn’t have an immediate support group of Americans I saw every day. I loved the freedom of this lifestyle, where I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself, but simultaneously was driven crazy by the amount of time I spent alone. Working through the loneliness, on the flip side, remains a great point of pride for me, as I found my own inner strength and moral compass, but doesn’t take away from the fact that I was really lonely at times. In short, my experience was a double-edged sword, which was not always easy to explain. Returnee-ism reared its ugly head.

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The positive, amazing hike side of my double-edged trip to British Colombia      (negative side not pictured)

So, here’s my advice for dealing with returnee-ism:

  1. First, accept the fact that these interactions are going to happen, and are going to happen whenever you come home from an exciting place. I just got home from attending two of my best friend’s wedding in Japan a month ago, and I dealt with the exact same questions I faced coming home from Spain.
  2. Second, if the trip didn’t have a frustrating aspect, then you’re either remembering incorrectly or lying to yourself. Overall, my trip to Japan was one of the best of my life, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t low points. The longer you live somewhere, the more this is magnified. Even if you can’t explain the complete nature of a trip to someone else, be as truthful as possible. Gilding or demonizing your trips can discount what you learned from them.
  3. Third, debrief. I went to Israel during December of 2014 and had an interesting experience, but one that was really frustrating as well. I wrote a blog on it, which really helped me put my trip in perspective. I’m in the process of writing one for Japan, and always travel with a journal. Find whatever mechanism is best for you to debrief, it’ll do you a lot of good.
  4. Finally, internalize everything, and go out again. Each time I’ve traveled after my study abroad experience, either domestically or internationally, I applied what I learned before and gained new skills to boot.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

 

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